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Swimming with sharks


This story has legs.

Exactly a year and a day ago, Nicole DeCriscio was editor of the student newspaper at DePauw University in Indiana.

Exactly one year ago, she was fired.

The circumstances were both suspicious and audacious, but the whisper-quiet senior’s first reaction was the most common one I’ve seen in 18 years of working with college journalists. She did nothing.

Eventually, she did something brave and rare. She defended herself. SMACK wrote about her twisted tale in a long post called Fishy at DePauw.

That story ended with SMACK using DePauw’s own rules to pay DeCriscio to speak at a college media convention in New York City – about how DePauw wrongfully fired her. It was a weird and wonderful weekend.

So what happened after? Well, despite DePauw officials dropping huge hints that she was jeopardizing her journalism career by, you know, sticking up for journalism, DeCriscio landed a job as a reporter for a small Indiana daily. Interestingly, DePauw boasted about this in a news release that mentions she was editor – but not that she was fired.

So all’s well that started stupidly, right? Sure, but at a cost.

SMACK exists to defend college journalists willing to defend themselves. Alas, few do. Even if it all works out in the end, there’s much to fear in the beginning and fret about in the middle. So DeCriscio asked us to post her story below. She wants college journalists to know the emotional toll  that being right can take – and that it’s still worth it…


A year ago today, I was fired as Editor-in-Chief from my campus newspaper, The DePauw, for alleged ethical violations that SPJ’s own ethics chair couldn’t fathom.

And with the exception of accepting interviews about what happened and speaking at CMA’s NYC16, I’ve remained quiet on the issue. That silence ends today.

The Background:

If you would’ve told me in August 2015 at the start of my term that a few months later I would be wrongfully fired, I would’ve called you crazy.

DePauw had and still has a long, rich history in producing strong, successful journalists despite the lack of a journalism school. I would have told you that the newspaper was completely independent of the university, and there wasn’t a story that we weren’t allowed to do. I was wrong on both counts.

While the newspaper had a standing contract with the university to rent the space for the newsroom and paid for production through advertisement sales and a fund set up in Barney Kilgore’s name, the university absorbed all of the tax liability for the newspaper, paid for a faculty adviser and had faculty members sit on a Publication’s Board that acted as a publisher for the newspaper.

That Publication’s Board selected the Editorial Board, and they were the ones to vote for my removal as Editor. And to sum up what happened, I was fired for writing a story with an unpopular opinion. (You can read about what happened here.)

The Experience:

I cried, a lot.

Like most college journalists, I spent more of my waking hours in the newsroom than anywhere else on campus. I did homework in the newsroom. I slaved over the campus newspaper twice-a-week from the start of my freshman year until I was fired. I was a staff member of The DePauw first and foremost, and then I was a student at DePauw University. My identity was not rooted in the university – it was rooted in that publication, so being fired meant that I lost not just my job, but my identity and my home. The newsroom was my safe space.

People thought I was still editor.

Because the campus newspaper never wrote a piece about my firing and the SPJ piece didn’t come out until well after my term would have been over, much of the campus thought that I was still Editor. And the Editor that replaced me made some judgment calls that I was continually questioned about because nobody knew I was fired. In fact, I had professors and peers who asked me the last week of school, seven months later, how things were going at the paper.

I was scared of backlash.

When I finally decided that I wanted to go on the record with SPJ’s SMACK on what happened. I was afraid of what the university or the key players would do to me. I prepared myself for things like a journalism professor intentionally failing me or the university withholding my diploma. And I prepared myself to fight those things.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional warfare that ensued.

The university didn’t have to do anything to me to make my life miserable. I had members of the DePauw community send me mean emails questioning me for speaking to a reporter. I was called a liar, among other things. Rather than looking to those who made the decision to fire me for answers, people blamed me for the spotlight that was cast on the university. Somehow, even though SPJ had determined that I should not have been fired, I was still “in the wrong.”

I was slandered, and the reasoning for my firing changed with every interview.

In the letter that they gave me, the reason for my firing was that I had “created a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest,” which they concluded was an ethical breach. After SPJ’s SMACK article on my firing, the reason was that they saw a pattern of uneven coverage from the onset and questioned my objectivity in the first two articles. The same coverage won a SPJ Region 5 Mark of Excellence Award. And finally, it was because I wrote the piece for another publication, which directly contradicted the letter I received when I was fired.

 I felt alone.

I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of support from other journalists that I know that were outside of the DePauw bubble. For a while. I had frequent phone calls and emails with Michael Koretzky and [SPJ FOI chairman] Gideon Grudo. Don’t get me wrong. There were people at DePauw who provided support throughout the ordeal, and a lot of recent alumni offered to do whatever I needed. But there wasn’t any concrete things others could do for me because nobody did anything to me. The only thing anyone could do was try to understand what I was feeling and offer moral support.

With the exception of a friend who worked at a newspaper two hours away, the only support I had from journalists were hundreds of miles away, and that felt isolating. Koretzky and Grudo knew how to help me cope with what was happening because they had experienced similar assaults on college media at Florida Atlantic University, but as they pointed out numerous times, it was so common at FAU that there was this built-in support network that I lacked at DePauw.

The experience tarnished my senior year.

Being Indiana’s Oldest College Newspaper, The DePauw has a lot of traditions, some of which are secret. That being said, there is one particular tradition in which the entire staff gets together, shares memories, talks about those who have come and gone and honors the seniors. The staff recalls first memories of the graduating seniors and says nice things about them. And in return, the seniors pass along advice and encouragement, saying things like, “It may not feel like it, but what you do matters” and, “Keep on fighting the good fight.” The seniors also talk about how, contrary to popular belief, there are jobs in journalism.

Because of my firing, I was never able to experience that tradition as a senior.

One Year Later:

The same people who made the decision to fire me told me that I had ruined my job prospects by the SPJ article coming out. While I knew it at the time because Koretzky told me, I now know they were trying to cover themselves. In fact, in the first 12 job applications that I sent out, I had in-person or phone interviews for four positions. From those interviews, I had one official job offer and one tentative one. I chose to keep looking for a position that I felt would be a better fit for me.

At every job interview, I was asked why I was fired and if I would do it again. And my answers were always the same: I wrote a column with an unfavorable opinion and yes. I was able to say, “Don’t take my word on the situation. SPJ wrote a piece about it. Want me to send you the link?” And at the time, I wasn’t sure if I would because the wounds hadn’t healed yet, but I knew that I didn’t want to work for someone who disagreed with SPJ’s thoughts on my firing.

The 13th application was lucky. Not only was I offered a position, but I accepted a job at a small paper in Indiana where I am the education beat reporter and a designer. Though, at a small paper, beats are really more suggestions, and I pick up a lot of stories outside of my beat too.

And the irony of it all is when talking to the editors who hired me, I found out that the article I wrote a year and 12 days ago, the article that resulted in my firing and led to all of the pain and turmoil, was the same article that was at least partially responsible for their decision to offer me the job. They said that the deeper level of thought and clear writing on a complex issue impressed them enough to hire me.

Now, when people ask if I would give some street preachers a couple sandwiches and write about it, I give them a yes, without a doubt. Because even in the limited retrospective view I have with a year’s distance, I can say that everything worked out, which is why, even after the hell I was put through, tonight when I get off work, I’ll raise a glass and toast to Old DePauw.

Nailed it


Fishy at DePauw


What’s a journo-fish?

Years ago, I read a bizarre New York Times science article called Sex Change in Fish Found Common. It began…

When a school of reef fish loses its single male, the largest female begins acting like a male within a few hours and will produce sperm within 10 days.

Wild, right?

But that doesn’t just happen in schools of fish. Something similar happens in schools of journalism.

Sadly, some journalists who become professors begin acting like administrators within days. Instead of sperm, they produce spin. I wrote about it last month, when several journos-turned-profs illegally closed a meeting of a Journalism Task Force.

Now it’s happened at DePauw University, an hour outside Indianapolis – and the birthplace of SPJ more than a century ago. A brand-new professor, who was previously an excellent journalist, helped depose a student editor for what she calls a “breach of ethics.”

Except it wasn’t. Even SPJ’s ethics chairman says so.


She’s a whale of a reporter.

The newspaper at DePauw is called, uncleverly, The DePauw. It’s 164 years old, but a new adviser started just this school year.

I met Meg Kissinger during her first week on the job, when I visited DePauw to lead a four-day training seminar for the newspaper staff. She was quite nice. Which, of course, makes what happened next quite awful.

Kissinger has spent 38 years on the job, many of them as an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist who specializes in covering mental health. (Check this out, it’s very cool.)

Kissinger graduated from DePauw in 1979, so it only made sense she’d return to train a new generation of kick-ass journalists.

Yet last semester, she – along with a group of school officials – removed The DePauw’s editor-in-chief for what they call “a damaging and avoidable conflict of interest.”

What did this editor do? She gave a preacher a sandwich.


She’s a pain in the bass.

In September, Nicole DeCriscio covered a familiar story: Crazy preachers who tour college campuses to verbally assault sinning students.

At DePauw, The Campus Ministry USA sent five members to harangue passing students as “baby killers, masturbators, porno freaks, feminists” and other interesting insults.

At most campuses, students mock the preachers, while campus cops roust anyone getting too agitated. When the drama ebbs, the traveling show moves on.

Not at DePauw.

DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ first visit, which so angered one woman, she threw hot coffee at them. Police officers even tackled a student and an administrator — both black men. Suddenly, the cops were the story, and the campus outcry was enough for DePauw’s president to call an “open forum” to talk about both the preachers and the police.

DeCriscio and one of her reporters covered the preachers’ follow-up visit the next week, which was anti-climactic. Prepared this time, students and faculty laughed at the preachers, and police sighed with relief.

Undaunted, the preachers tried one last time before migrating to another campus. Figuring the story was over, DeCriscio decided to do something different and dig a little deeper. So she wrote a first-person column called Why I Brought Brother Jed A Sandwich

I think that if they turned in their signs reading “You promote rape” and “Yoga pants are a sin” for something like “Ask me about Jesus Christ,” they would be far more effective. Each of them have a remarkable testimony that has the power to change the hearts and minds of others. It has the ability to bring others to Christ…I’m sad that my brothers and sisters in Christ at DePauw, which even include some members of the faculty and staff, failed to demonstrate Christ’s love.

That was too much for Kissinger. DeCriscio was fired 12 days later.


Carping on this letter.

DeCriscio was fired the old-fashioned way: She was handed a letter on stationery. (Click the image above to read it.) Her offense was explained like this…

You had already established yourself as a reporter covering the news of the events surrounding Campus Ministries’ visit to campus. By inserting yourself as an interested actor within the ongoing news story, you created a conflict of interest that was both avoidable and ultimately damaging to the reputation of The DePauw.

When I called Kissinger to ask if the editor was really fired for writing an opinion column, the conversation went like this…

Kissinger: The problem was, how could she  impartially oversee coverage of the story for the rest of the semester?

Me: But Nicole says the story was over. She told  me, “When I wrote the column about the sandwich, the  preachers had no intention of coming back to DePauw that semester.”

Kissinger: There’s no way of knowing that.

Me: Fair enough, but she says if they did come back, she’d just assign the story to someone else – which she can do, because, I mean, she’s the editor. Is this really a firing offense?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired.

Me: Uh…what?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired. She was suspended for the remainder of her term.

Me: What’s the difference?

Kissinger: Well, it’s not like she’s banned from the paper.

Me: She’s not?

Kissinger: She’s welcome to write any other stories for the paper. She knows that. She’s welcome to write a review for the paper, and she can cover another story.

Me: But if she wrote something so terrible that it got her fired, why is it OK for her to write something else now?

Kissinger: She wasn’t fired, Michael. She was suspended because it was a conflict of interest for her to express her opinion. Really, that’s in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Except it’s really not.


He’s saying, “Holy mackerel!”

As SPJ’s ethics chair, Andrew Seaman‘s job is usually one of nuance and restraint. Many ethical conundrums require sublime parsing.

Not this one.

“I take issue with the adviser’s draconian approach,” he told me after reading the letter and Kissinger’s explanation. “I don’t think giving protesters sandwiches and drinks really interferes with Nicole’s ability to do a good story.”

Even if it did, “I still say the offense didn’t fit the punishment – especially for a student publication.”

As Seaman explains…

Student newspapers are laboratories for journalists in training. Unless an offense is on par with plagiarism, fabrication, and the ilk, professors and advisers should use perceived errors as educational moments.

But he doesn’t perceive any errors…

The SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.” Didn’t Nicole live up to that by explaining her actions? Really, Nicole could argue she addressed nearly all of the principles under the Code’s tenet to “be accountable and transparent.”

Seaman is stunned – and galled – that SPJ’s Code of Ethics was twisted into a reason to fire a student editor…

As someone who helped write the revised Code of Ethics and served as its guardian since its adoption, I can say DePauw’s actions are not keeping with the spirit of the document. In my opinion, everyone there overreacted, took Draconian action, and now are stuck defending those decisions.

Seaman’s conclusion: “In the grand scheme of things, the editor of a student publication took some protesters food and drinks. Is that really worth all this trouble? I don’t think so.”


The sole reason for all this.

If DeCriscio was fired – er, suspended – for violating SPJ’s Code of Ethics when SPJ’s ethics chair says she didn’t, something fishy is going on here.

DeCriscio thinks it was this…

The campus had decided to hate Brother Jed. Because I saw him as a whole person, I think it was the content why I got fired. Meg said the same thing would have happened if I wrote about kittens, but I don’t believe that.

My theory is slightly different: DeCriscio was also fired to protect an adviser who she says drank with her students in the newsroom.

When I visited DePauw last summer, I asked the newspaper’s editors what they did for fun when they weren’t doing journalism. The answer: “We drink.” How much? “A lot.”

The students told me drinking is a huge problem at DePauw, and they credit the administration with valiantly trying to keep it sane. But they also say it doesn’t make a dent.

“There’s nothing else to do around here,” the (under-aged) art director told me, waving a hand to indicate the entire town of Greencastle, Indiana.

The week I visited, I hung out with the editors on deadline – and watched many of them rush through production so they could go drink. The art director joked, “We should just start drinking in the newsroom.”

A few weeks after I left, DeCriscio said that’s exactly what happened – and Meg Kissinger drank with the staff.

“My staff first drank on deadline the Thursday before Brother Jed’s visit,” she says. “They started around 7. They also mostly hid it from me by putting it in closed water bottles. That was the night that Meg drank with them.”

Stunned, I asked DeCriscio for details.

“I saw her drinking out of a paper coffee cup,” she told me. “I overheard my staff say, ‘I hope Meg didn’t drink all our wine.’ It was wine. She also later admitted to me that she drank with them.”

(I’ve asked Kissinger about this twice via email, but her only reply has been, “Drinking did not factor in the decision.”)

The following week, now assuming they had the adviser’s blessing, the editors didn’t bother with water bottles. DeCriscio says…

“They went to pull out the wine around 7 or 7:30. I asked them to wait until closer to the end of deadline night. They waited an hour.  I was pissed that my asking them to wait wasn’t enough. I was pissed that the advisers hadn’t helped me put an end to it after the first incident. I don’t know how much wine they had coming into that night, but they left four large empty bottles in the trash.

DeCriscio isn’t straight-edge or a teetotaler. What infuriated her about the drinking was the shoddy journalism that resulted from it. But at DePauw, the editor-in-chief can’t fire staffers who were hired before her term – and the drinkers were staffers she inherited. So she complained to Kissinger and the publication board. She didn’t feel like her complaint was embraced.

“They called this kumbaya meeting with the editorial board and said, ‘This must stop’ because it’s against university policy,” DeCriscio says.  But there was no investigation, punishment, or monitoring. It was never mentioned again.

Interestingly, The DePauw also never mentioned its editor being fired (I mean suspended). DeCriscio finds that amusing.

“I did something so bad that I was fired over it, but what’s worse was that they didn’t follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and report on my firing,” she says. “It was swept under the rug.”

Maybe because under that rug were a lot of empty wine bottles.


In cod we trust.

SMACK likes to win weird. We’re not powerful enough to get a fired editor reinstated at a private university. We can, however, use the school’s own rules to pay for her to go to Manhattan.

Like many schools, DePauw offers grants to its students if they do something above and beyond. So SMACK asked the College Media Association if SPJ could present a session next month at its annual spring convention, just a few blocks from Times Square. We then asked DeCriscio to speak about what happened to her as editor.

Based on that, she applied for, and won, a $600 Student Research & Artistic Grant, plus $500 from The Hubbard Center for Student Engagement.

That’s enough for airfare, cab, hotel, and convention registration. So basically, DePauw is paying for DeCriscio to go to New York City to talk about how she got fired. I mean, suspended.

While she’s there, DeCriscio will interview student journalists about drinking in their  own newsrooms – because I doubt The DePauw invented that. Her report will appear on the College Media Watchdog.

We also asked DeCriscio to join the SMACK staff, where she’ll help choose winners of our own cash grants, called The Bayonet Awards. She’s said yes. Why? Just for the halibut.


A faint Echo


This guy might be advising a student newspaper.

Or he might not.

Michael Hillman is publisher of the Emmitsburg News-Journal, a local newspaper near Mount St. Mary’s University in northern Maryland. The small Catholic school made big headlines last month when its president called freshmen “cuddly bunnies” who need “a Glock to their heads.”

Mount St. Mary’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, broke that story. Media from as far away as England’s Daily Mail ran with it. When I wrote about The Echo three weeks ago, I thought everything would blow over and calm down.

Man, was I wrong. Last Monday, the president fired Echo adviser Ed Egan and a tenured philosophy professor for “disloyalty.” By Friday, the president offered both of them “forgiveness” and reinstatement.

That same day, Michael Hillman met with a half-dozen Echo editors for his first meeting as the new adviser. It was a surprise to both him and the students.

“The school had asked me earlier in the week if I’d be willing to help The Echo,” Hillman says. “But the first time I even knew I was appointed adviser was in an email to the student body. I wasn’t even cc’ed on it.”

One of his own editors, a Mount St. Mary’s student, showed him the email. Hillman eventually spoke with the school’s media relations director, Christian Kendzierski.

“He was very specific: We do not want you to gag – or give the impression of gagging – the students,” Hillman says. “Other than that, they didn’t give me any guidance.”

Hillman briefly met Dr. Pratibha Kumar, who will share duties with him as the faculty adviser.

“Dr. Kumar talked for two minutes about journalism ethics, and the next two hours were me,” Hillman says. “We talked about advertising, about getting paid, about reaching out to the community.”

But they didn’t talk about the fired adviser, Ed Egan.


This guy might not be advising anymore.

While Ed Egan has been offered reinstatement, he told Inside Higher Ed he’s not sure he’ll accept it. If he does? Hillman isn’t sure who’s the adviser.

“No one’s told me anything,” Hillman says. “I don’t know what would happen.”

Neither does Kendzierski, the school’s media relations director: “Moving forward, I am not sure of Ed Egan’s role in the paper.”

My opinion: Maybe Ed Egan shouldn’t come back.

That’s a weird thing for me to say, since my SPJ job is to defend journalists. But I’m not sure how journalistic Egan is.

(He’s a lawyer who’s never been a journalist, but that matters the least to me – plenty of journalists lack journalism ethics, and plenty of non-journalists are very ethical.)

Egan told CBS News he’s “being punished for accurate but embarrassing reporting by the students.” But he refuses to answer my questions:

  • Did you advise the students not to talk to the university president for the “bunnies” story? Almost as disturbing as the president’s scary comments was this: He offered to speak to The Mountain Echo a month before the story published, but the paper refused to interview him.
  • Did you advise the students to run a one-sided story with only anonymous sources? Shortly before the “bunnies” story, The Mountain Echo ran a story called, Administration Announces Cuts to Employee Health Care, Retirement Benefits. It quotes only anonymous sources critical of the administration, and it doesn’t quote anyone in the administration.
  • Did you advise students to sent their completed stories to sources before publication? That happened at least once, according to one of the editors. It almost never happens anywhere else in the journalism world.

Since Mount St. Mary’s has no journalism school, the newspaper adviser has an even heavier burden of training the student staff in ethical reporting.

Indeed, in my conversations with The Echo’s managing editor – who’s really the editor, apparently, which is just another confusing part of this twisted situation – I learned most of the editors don’t want to be journalists at all. Ironically, managing editor Ryan Golden wants to become a media relations director at a school like Mount St. Mary’s.

Golden admitted to me that he doesn’t feel completely comfortable reporting big stories, and he initially seemed eager to accept SPJ’s offer to send free trainers to his campus. When I made the same offer to Egan, he never replied.

In talking to my own anonymous sources at Mount St. Mary’s, it seems possible Egan was deeply involved in the faculty faction that hates the new president for slashing professor benefits. If so, perhaps that colored his advising.

Of course, those sources have their own greedy reasons for talking to me, so I’ve tried to run them by Egan. I fully expected to be persuaded by his side. I usually find oppressed advisers to be quite credible.

Alas, I’ve only spoken to Egan once – a call he interrupted, then said he’d get back to me. That was almost month ago, and he’s ignored my emails since. But until he answers these questions, it’s tough to defend him.


This guy is definitely the problem.

Mount St. Mary’s president Simon Newman has his defenders, who say the school needs to both trim its budget and boost its graduation rate. Maybe so, but he’s got a deranged way of explaining himself, and a horrible way of handing the ensuing controversy.

For his part, Michael Hillman is on the president’s side. “If for some reason this president leaves, all bets are off” he says of his new part-time role.

That makes Hillman’s advising just as suspect as Egan’s. Except for a few things…

First, Hillman has told me in two separate phone calls he’s eager to accept SPJ’s offer of free training from professional journalists – in ethics, balanced reporting, and anything else The Echo wants.

Second, newsroom leader Golden told me yesterday, “We still have freedom of the press. Our new advisors are willing to work closely with us, and they’ll allow us to continue our operations as normal. We’re ready to publish on Wednesday with a very full issue.”

So what happens now at this small Catholic school? Who the hell knows.


Rack ’em!


You just can’t top this…

Yesterday, Florida Atlantic University miraculously found a new place for South Florida Gay News to distribute. All it took was the threat of topless women strolling around campus, handing out copies of a gay newspaper.

See yesterday’s post )

FAU had insisted it would take 16 months – until May 2017 – to “renovate” the single metal rack where SFGN offered free copies of its weekly issues. FAU has built parking garages quicker than that.

Now SFGN will have two campus locations: one outside the library, the other outside the student union. After a month of ignoring his efforts at compromise, SFGN editor Jason Parsley says FAU promised him those racks would be installed within the next 2-3 weeks.

“I’m happy we were able to resolve this issue so quickly,” Parsley says. “But in the future, I would advise FAU to respond to people in a timely fashion, in order to avoid a situation like this spiraling out of control.”

Yesterday, FAU’s student newspaper offered to help. Editor Emily Bloch says SFGN can borrow some University Press racks until SFGN’s racks are ready.

Parsley is pleased, and he has no regrets…

This was just one distribution point out of hundreds that we have here at SFGN. I could have just as easily said it wasn’t worth my time. While I’m sure FAU sees this differently, I saw it as First Amendment issue. And it’s important to remember the First Amendment is non-negotiable. Our freedom of speech and the press are two civil rights that nobody can take away.

So all’s well that started stupidly. Alas, tomorrow’s topless distribution protest has been called off.

Too bad, because I was really looking forward to FAU frat boys eagerly accepting newspapers from topless women, only to read them and realize, “Hey, this is gay!”

Michael Koretzky was FAU’s part-time newspaper adviser from 1998 until 2010, when he was fired. The staff asked him to volunteer, which he still does to this day.


Nice rack


Staying abreast of the news…

On Wednesday, topless women will distribute a gay newspaper at a public university in South Florida.

Why? To defend a free press.

South Florida Gay News is the southeast’s largest weekly gay newspaper, but Florida Atlantic University only allows SFGN to distribute in a single spot on campus.

It’s a metal rack FAU built, which sounds generous until you learn the school banned SFGN from having its own racks. The school says it’s trying to “beautify” the campus by getting rid of ugly newspaper boxes.

That’s fine as far as it goes – those things are ugly – but earlier this month, FAU sent this poorly written email to SFGN editor Jason Parsley

The newspaper racks that was assigned for placing the South Florida Gay News publication were removed from the breezeway for renovation project. At this time we do not have an alternate location. Please suspend the delivery of the magazine until further notice.

Parsley inquired, “Do you have a timeframe on when the project will be complete?”

This is the full text of FAU’s reply: “The project is expected to be finished in May of 2017.”

That’s a long time to renovate a metal box. It’s also illegal, as we’ll see in a moment.

Parsley didn’t give up: “Are there other locations on campus where publications display their products?”

FAU didn’t give in: “Unfortunately the breezeway was the only location. I will let you know if we will identify other locations in the meantime.”

Parsley tried again, but FAU is no longer responding. On his own, he learned FAU also booted a couple other free publications. But they don’t cover news – they’re glorified shoppers – and they didn’t object.

So what’s going on here? I have a theory: FAU is banning several small publications to get to SFGN, and it has nothing to do with being gay.


The naked truth…

Two weeks before FAU ousted Parsley’s newspaper, he wrote this column criticizing his alma mater for violating Florida’s open-meetings law. (Parsley was editor of FAU’s student newspaper in 2007.)

Is FAU retaliating against SFGN? If not, this sure is a coincidence. Which isn’t lost on Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC.

“A public university can’t single out certain disfavored publications based on editorial content and give them inferior distribution locations – or none at all – to penalize or restrain unwanted messages,” LoMonte says.

LoMonte says the law is “murky” about public universities being required to distribute off-campus publications. But…

Once a college in fact has made the decision to allow newsracks on campus walkways, then there must be some reasonable justification for deviating from that policy unrelated to the publication’s content, and the speaker must be provided with some reasonable alternative way of reaching the audience.

If FAU is effectively banning the publication from campus, it would have the burden of showing that the decision is both unrelated to the publication’s content and that no alternative location exists, which would be awfully hard to do.

That’s “awfully hard” because only 16 days separate Parsley’s critical column and FAU’s ungrammatical emails. Plus, two daily newspapers aren’t being booted for renovations. LoMonte calls this “circumstantial evidence of a cause-and-effect” – and he says it’s “quite strong.”

So SFGN could sue FAU. And it might. SFGN’s publisher is an attorney who has gone to court over First Amendment issues before – and won. If a lawsuit happens, SMACK will help him apply to SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund.

But that could take months. We have a better, quicker idea.


How to get the circulation going…

If FAU doesn’t back down, SMACK will take off the gloves – and the tops. On Wednesday, volunteers will walk around campus handing out SFGN’s latest issue.

You can see the cover above. It’s about the Go Topless Movement, which seeks equal treatment under the law: If men can walk around bare-chested, why can’t women?

So it only makes sense that topless women will hand out the paper. Luckily, the forecast is sunny and 74 degrees. (This plan wouldn’t work at the University of Vermont.)

We’ll notify local media, and our volunteers will even hand-deliver copies to the office of FAU President John Kelly.

If campus cops arrest our volunteers, SMACK will throw their bail. And if everyone has a good time, we just might do this for every weekly issue of SFGN.

Or FAU can finally reply to Parsley and come up with a solution that won’t take 16 months. But now that we’ve organized all of this, I kind of hope they don’t.


Michael Koretzky was FAU’s part-time newspaper adviser from 1998 until 2010, when he was fired. The staff asked him to volunteer, which he still does to this day.


Holy crap!


Journalists who refuse to comment? Administrators who want to?

When the newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University made national headlines this week, I wanted to congratulate the editors. Instead, I’m concerned about them.

I’m not worried the school will retaliate, even though the Mountain Echo‘s reporting resulted in this bizarre Washington Post headline


…because administrators at the small Catholic school in northern Maryland (2,200 students) seem have turned the other cheek. Meanwhile, the editors and their adviser have totally turned me off.

I started out totally on their side, too.

When I first heard about how they uncovered secret email exchanges between the school’s new president and administrators, I was prepared to be amazed. Those emails reveal the president was scheming to dismiss 20-25 freshmen he didn’t think were impressive enough.

“Put a Glock to their heads,” he allegedly told an administrator.

Mount St. Mary’s has no journalism school, and it’s private – meaning the student editors have little training and a lot to lose. Unlike public universities, they lack many Constitutional protections their public peers possess. They could easily get expelled.

With those scary facts in mind, I wanted to offer SPJ’s support. But then it got weird.


No comment, no confidence.

The Mountain Echo’s website lists no staff, no email addresses, and no phone number. The only way  to reach them is through this form. When I didn’t hear back, I contacted the school’s Media Relations office.

Given the hard-hitting story I was calling about, I didn’t expect good relations with media relations director Christian A. Kendzierski. I plainly told him that I defend student journalists who ethically investigate uncomfortable topics.

“Awesome,” he said. “That’s what student newspapers do.”

Then gave me contact info for managing editor Ryan Golden and newspaper adviser Ed Egan. Last night, they conference-called me, along with news editor Rebecca Schisler.

My first innocent question: Howdy, where’s the editor?

Uncomfortable silence.

“We don’t have a very conventional hierarchy.” Golden said. He gave a long explanation I couldn’t follow, but basically, he’s the editor. 

Odd, but whatever. I really just wanted to ask some questions so I could pre-empt any administrator who tried to undercut the story. Student journalists are bound to make mistakes, so if we can explain how those mistakes happened – that they came from inexperience and not malevolence – SPJ can still defend them.

I definitely had some questions…

  • Why wasn’t the university president interviewed? On Dec. 4, he agreed to talk, and the story didn’t run till this week. Yet in an “editorial statement,” you write, “The Mountain Echo denied this request,” partly based on “the professional advice of a third-party journalist.” Who was that?
  • Did anyone else hear the “glock” comment? You report in the story that the president said this “to a small group of faculty and administrators.” Only one administrator confirmed it and the  president denies it. Did you ask the others?
  • Who suggested sending the story to your sources? In yet another “editorial statement,” you write, “The Echo’s editorial board decided…the article should be sent to the Office of the President and the Board of Trustees for comment.” Journalists almost never do that. Why did you?

I didn’t get far before before Egan interrupted, “Where are you going with these questions?”

I don’t recall exactly what I said, because I was a tad discombobulated – I’ve only ever heard that from politicians, coaches, business executives, and administrators. Never journalists.

I offered to send Egan links to this blog and the SMACK homepage, and he promised they’d all call me back “in a few minutes.”


A half-hour later…

Golden called and said, “We have to postpone any comments for the time being.”

Really? Why?

“We’re just inundated with calls right now. But we appreciate your concern.”

You were just talking to me. Now you’re too busy to comment?

“We’ll make sure we’ll get back to you when we’re comfortable.”

Wait, now you’re not busy but you’re uncomfortable? Ryan, if you were reporting a story and you heard this, what would you think?

“I perfectly understand. But we will get back to you, I promise you that.”


“Next week, maybe.”


“Thank you.”

Damn, I thought – I just got a slick brush-off from a college student. I was actually impressed. But of course, I was also confused.


What’s really going on?

Maybe the editors and adviser are simply freaked out by all the coverage. The president has called their story “innuendo” and “not accurate at all,” while the Board of Trustees has dismissed it as “a grossly inaccurate impression on the subject.”

Of course, the president and his allies have yet to explain away the “bunnies and glocks” comments – which likely means they can’t. But still, for young reporters, this is a lot of heat.

Then again, Golden didn’t sound at all freaked out when I spoke with him. And while the president and his allies have grumbled, they haven’t retaliated.

Obviously, Golden and Egan don’t want SPJ prying further, and Golden even said he’d read my post calling out student newspapers for doing dumb things.

I asked Kendzierski, the media relations director, what he thought was going on here. Obviously, he’s not what you’d call an objective observer. But what the hell…

His theory: “I fear the students are being misled.” Mount St Mary’s is in the middle of a nasty faculty fight over employee benefits. The school is cutting healthcare and retirement contributions.

The Mountain Echo covered the story in November – using only anonymous sources and not interviewing the president or any senior administrator who made the decision. The story is full of accusations that the other side never gets to address. Was that a rookie mistake or was it intentional?

Kendzierski thinks the students are being manipulated by faculty who want to embarrass the school so they can weaken the president who’s cutting their benefits.

I don’t know what to believe, because I usually figure that out by talking to both sides. Most times, the journalists open up and the administrators clam up. This is the first time in my six years on the SPJ national board where that’s been flipped upside down.


Mountain or molehill?

Here’s what I have decided: If Egan or Golden call me back, I’ll offer to send veteran SPJers to their northern Maryland campus. I’ll pay for pro journalists to train their staff – everything from investigative techniques to balanced reporting.

The Mountain Echo obviously has some brave and hard-working students, so this would be money well spent. And it’s theirs for a phone call.

Sure hope I hear from them.


Ha! Ha! That’s terrible!


This joke is hilarious…

Q. What do you call a meeting of journalists who want to discuss the journalism in the student newspaper at a public university?

A. Closed to the public.

Welcome to Florida Atlantic University, which is a real funny place. Last semester, FAU appointed a Journalism Task Force of mostly faculty. Their mission: “Improve” the reporting in its student newspaper. But they closed their meetings to the public after I showed up at one.

“Your last visit caused concern for some faculty who felt it was disruptive to have a non-member of the task force at the table,” JTF chairman Neil Santaniello emailed me.

He added…

The Communication Department consulted with FAU General Counsel on whether the JTF meetings were open to the public. The interpretation we received: the task force is a fact-finding body, not a decision-making body. In short: JTF meetings are not public. The school director, David Williams, came to the same conclusion

That’s funny for three reasons…

  1. I sat in the back of the meeting and said nothing unless spoken to. How is that “disruptive”?
  2. Santaniello and three other JTF faculty members are former journalists who once quietly observed meetings themselves.
  3. FAU’s attorney is so wrong, it’s not even funny.

This joke is illegal…

“Under Florida law, advisory committees formed for the purpose of making recommendations are subject to both our open meetings law and the public records law,” says attorney Barbara Petersen, who’s also president of the First Amendment Foundation, based in Florida’s capital of Tallahassee.

In the nation’s capital, another attorney agrees.

“Legally, I think the answer is pretty clear,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC. “This is really a ‘task force’ appointed to participate in the decision process — it’s not just six people informally getting together for a brainstorming session.”

Because of that, “Under Florida law, it’s a public meeting and must comply with all of the legal formalities — including giving public notice and letting the public attend.”

I’ve twice emailed David Williams, the director of FAU’s Communication School. In an amusing twist, he refuses to communicate with me.


This joke is sad…

After hearing these legal opinions, FAU administrators still didn’t open those Journalism Task Force meetings. Instead, they shut down the entire project.

Here’s the joint statement yesterday from arts and letters dean Heather Coltman and student affairs vice president Corey King

Due to the desire of some individuals to create unnecessary conflict that does not contribute to the progress of student journalism at FAU or aid in the progress of designing a better learning experience for students, we have decided to suspend the activities of the task force.

I’m fairly certain I’m one of those “individuals.”

I had threatened to crash the next JTF meeting and force them to arrest me, because that would’ve been hilarious: Journalists calling the cops to arrest a journalist trying to report on a meeting of journalists talking about journalism.


This joke is typical…

Weirdly, Coltman and King believe open meetings do “not contribute to the progress of student journalism at FAU.”

That confuses the SPLC’s Frank LoMonte…

Leaving the law aside, it’s ponderous why any discussion of the structure of a journalism program should exclude interested campus stakeholders. The biggest question would be: Why would you want to?

The reason we have a legal requirement to conduct meetings in the open is because closed meetings inherently breed distrust. Any decision produced by a meeting from which the public is purposefully and consciously excluded will be tainted by a cloud of illegitimacy.

Of course, if the real purpose of the Journalism Task Force was to scheme ways to gut the newspaper’s embarrassing coverage of FAU, then secret meetings make sense.

LoMonte and many others wouldn’t be shocked if the JTF was just the latest assault on a student newspaper that’s uncovered uncomfortable truths in the past – like its investigation of FAU’s Board of Trustees that found those 13 overseers of the school’s finances have personally accumulated “three bankruptcy filings, seven foreclosures, 21 tax warrants, and one federal tax lien.”

Now that’s good comedy.


This joke ain’t over.

The punchline here is: College media rarely “win” these battles, but if they always fight with a smile, they’ll never lose. In this millennium alone, FAU has, among other things…

  • tried locking students out of their newsroom
  • illegally frozen the newspaper’s budget
  • fired its adviser
  • threatened the editor with student conduct court if she met with that adviser even off campus

…yet FAU’s student journalists have always gotten the last laugh, then landed good jobs. That’s because you value most what you must fight to keep. And FAU loves to pick a fight.

“If there’s any university in America that has earned zero benefit of the doubt in its treatment of journalists,” LoMonte says, “it’s Florida Atlantic, with its deplorably long rap sheet of stonewalling and harassment.”

So if the students at FAU can win weirdly, you can, too. We’re here to help. Check out SMACK for details.

Michael Koretzky was FAU’s part-time newspaper adviser from 1998 until 2010, when he was fired. The staff asked him to volunteer, which he still does to this day.


College media crystal ball


Click bait

Remember Melissa Click?

She’s the communication professor at the University of Missouri who asked for some “muscle” to oust a student journalist from a campus racism protest.

Now Missouri lawmakers want to muscle her out of a job. On Monday, 100 Republicans in the state’s General Assembly wrote a letter demanding the school fire her. On Tuesday, 115 faculty members wrote a letter defending her.

According to the Kansas City Star, lawmakers said Click’s outburst “served to inflame an already caustic situation that was clearly out of line,” while faculty simply called it “at most a regrettable mistake.”

So should she be fired? You could argue she’s been punished enough by the worldwide web, where she’s been mocked by memes and cartoons that will exist long after she doesn’t. (see below)

But here are three crucial questions. If the answers are all NO, then YES, Click needs to work somewhere else. Like China or Cuba.


1. Is she sorry for what she did?

Or is she just sorry for what’s happened to her since?

A day after she became Internet Enemy No. 1 for trying to muscle out student reporter Mark Schierbecker, Click issued a public apology. But when Schierbecker dropped by her office for a personal apology, he told The Washington Post it didn’t go that well.

“She made no acknowledgement that what she did was assault,” he said. “She told me she had talked to another faculty member who is versed in constitutional law, and she said this professor had told her that it was kind of iffy as to whether faculty was allowed to enforce a perimeter like that.”

If Click still thinks that’s iffy, she should be fired in a jiffy. Otherwise, all she’s learned is: The next time I violate someone’s rights, I need to break their camera first.


2. Did everyone else get the message?

If those 115 faculty members feel Click’s antics were “at most a regrettable mistake,” what’s the least they think it was?

And what about the other 1,290 faculty members who didn’t sign the letter? How many would choose a stronger word than “regrettable”? Like maybe “embarrassing”? Or “alarming”? Or “illegal”?

As these professors know from their own classes, you don’t enforce discipline just to punish one offender. You also do it to send a message to everyone else. Example: If one student flouts your attendance policy and gets away with it, guess how many show up to the next class?

If that’s vital for attendance, surely it’s the same for the First Amendment.

If Click’s punishment is essentially time served, that only make sense if she and her peers have literally learned their (civics) lesson.


3. Will she talk to student media?

Besides doctors who smoke, I can’t think of a professional irony sadder than a communications professor who won’t comment.

As best I can tell, Click hasn’t granted a single interview to any news outlet. The least she can do is sit down with the student newspaper and TV station and talk about what happened.

If Click is truly sorry, and she’s truly an educator, she’ll make this a “teachable moment” for everyone – herself included.


So what does Mark Schierbecker think?

Schierbecker and I exchanged emails, and he sounded more mature than those letter-writing lawmakers and professors. When I asked him if Click should be fired, he replied calmly and deliberatively…

I think she should immediately be suspended pending an investigation. Asking for her to be immediately fired goes too far in my opinion. Usually, there is due process and then a proportional response. I don’t know what the outcome of the investigation should be.

As for the rest of the campus, Schierbecker says, “Many professors seemed to really get it. They were truly horrified by Click’s actions.”

Finally, he reminded me that this isn’t just about him. Other journalists were actually attacked at the protest. But since his video went viral, he became the name.

“Reporters had their gear smashed and women reporters were picked up by the protesters,” Schierbecker says. “One man threw a backpack at a reporter’s face. He didn’t see that as a response that was overkill.”

Lot of that going around these days.



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